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Mar. 18, 2011

How does our planet work? Roll up your sleeves and help scientists find out!

by Lisa Gardiner

Click to enlarge images
Walnut leaf, by Carlye Calvin

Walnut leaf, by Carlye Calvin (UCAR Digital Image Library)

There’s a lot going on in my backyard. Small green leaves are emerging in the garden. Squirrels are running along the top of the fence. Birds are filling the peach tree with song. That’s what I saw this morning. To me, these are the amusing natural antics found in my quasi-urban backyard. But my observations can be something else too –- scientific data!

Many scientific research projects are collecting and studying data about the plants, animals, weather and water resources in places like backyards, urban parks, natural areas and farms. Some of these projects focus on a particular region or country. Others are worldwide. When many people collect and report information about the natural world using a standard procedure, the data can be very useful for exploring scientific questions about how ecosystems and environments are affected by seasonal change, climate change, pollution and other impacts.

The people who turn their observations from backyards and other such places into scientific data are sometimes called citizen scientists. Many citizen scientists are involved with collecting data about the natural world. Other citizen scientists are involved with analysis or interpretation of data. Some people even help design scientific studies working directly with scientists. There are also citizen scientists contributing to cell biology, space science, and paleontology projects (Check out the Talking Science post about the Mastodon Matrix Project!) Increasingly, citizen scientists are playing an important role in scientific research.

Note that to be a citizen scientist, one does not need to be a citizen of a particular country. In fact, one need not be a scientist either. Most citizen scientists have no formal scientific training and they are citizens of various countries. While many citizen science projects do have training programs to allow you to learn how to contribute to the study, there are not usually any prerequisites. Other projects don’t have training programs and you can get started right away.

Interested in becoming a citizen scientist? If so, there are several excellent web sites where you can browse science projects that need your help including Citizen Science Central from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Science For Citizens and Citsci.org. Watch for upcoming posts in this blog about citizen scientists and citizen science projects that are helping us better understand our planet and the Universe.

Are you already a citizen scientist? If so, I want to hear from you! There are many ways to be a citizen scientist. Post a comment about your experience below.

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Lisa Gardiner has a background in several “ologies” – ecology, paleontology and geology. She writes and teaches about nature and environmental science, and also describes the natural world via illustrations and artwork. Lisa is the director of education at the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) where she develops educational resources that help connect people with the natural world. Currently, she is exploring the world of citizen science to help inform NEON’s journey into this exciting area. Lisa holds a Ph.D. in Geology and enjoys exploring the Earth from the tops of Colorado’s mountains to the bottom of the sea.

About Lisa Gardiner

Dr. Lisa Gardiner is a writer and content creator at Spark: Science Education at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. She likes how citizen science and social media get people involved in science and is a contributing editor at SciStarter.com.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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